By Greg McCune
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Public school teachers in Chicago voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new three-year contract, ending a bitter dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over school reforms that prompted the first strike of city teachers in 25 years.
The Chicago Teachers Union said 79.1 percent of its members voted in favor of the deal, which will give teachers an average pay raise of 17.6 percent over four years if the contract is extended an extra year. Ratification required a majority vote in favor.
By ratifying the contract, the teachers also officially ended their strike against the country's third-largest school district, which was suspended on September 18.
Some 350,000 students in Chicago missed seven days of school as a result of the walkout that sparked a national debate over education reform.
"This shows overwhelming recognition by our members that this contract represents a victory for students, communities and our profession," said union president Karen Lewis, the former high school chemistry teacher who led the strike.
Chicago School Board President David Vitale said in a statement that he was pleased the union had ratified the agreement and that the two sides had been able to bridge their differences. The school board still must approve the deal.
Now that the agreement has been ratified, teachers fear that Emanuel will close dozens of poorly performing schools, laying off unionized teachers. At a news conference Thursday, Lewis said this "probably" will be the union's next big battle.
"I still got my boxing gloves," said Lewis.
In addition to the pay raises, the deal establishes for the first time an evaluation system for teachers that is based in part on student performance on standardized tests. It also gives principals more authority to hire teachers for their schools and extends the length of the school day.
The union got guarantees that any teachers laid off will have preference to be rehired by the district, and Emanuel dropped a demand that teacher pay be tied to merit.
The deal could be costly to the school district, which has said it is facing a financial crisis.
Fitch Ratings earlier this week downgraded the Chicago Board of Education's debt rating, citing the school system's increased budget pressures in the wake of the deal. This followed a downgrade by Moody's Investors Services last week and could mean the district pays higher interest rates on any debt issues.
The pay increases would cost an extra $74 million a year, the district has said. Chicago teachers make an average of about $76,000 annually, according to the school district.
SCHOOL CLOSURES DEBATED
Emanuel, backed by a powerful reform movement, believes poorly performing schools should be closed and that parents should have more choices among public schools, including charter schools that often are non-union and run by private groups.
Teachers want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed. They say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80 percent of Chicago public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.
Lewis said the way the district has been closing schools for the past 15 years has been "disastrous," and closing schools actually costs money up front -- from $300,000 to over a $1 million to close a school.
"If they'd like to listen to us and make the community and the people who actually work in these schools a part of the process, they might actually have a little bit more success," said Lewis at Thursday's news conference.
Chicago's public school students perform poorly on standardized tests and the high school graduation rate is about 60 percent compared with a national rate of 75 percent.
Lewis also said protecting pensions for teachers will be another struggle for the future.
The Chicago teachers pension plan has an unfunded liability of about $7.1 billion. The nonpartisan Civic Federation said the pension fund is only 60 percent funded, well below the 80 percent level considered healthy. The Illinois legislature is expected to consider overhauling public sector pension programs after the November election, including possible benefit cuts.
The school strike, and the battle over the contract leading up to it, highlighted a cantankerous relationship between the fiery Lewis and politically ambitious Chicago mayor, who Lewis said used profanity during a private meeting with her.
Asked if the new contract would mean a new relationship with Emanuel, Lewis said, "You know who that's up to."
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski and James B. Kelleher; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)